Understanding Exposure for Film or Digital Capture

Exposure latitude is the extent to which film (or an imaging chip, for that matter) can be overexposed or underexposed and still produce an acceptable result.

Not everybody these days starting shooting photographs with film cameras. Understanding exposure for film and digital photography is helped with just a little bit of information about how filmed worked (and still works today.)

Slide film has the least amount of latitude, especially for overexposure, while color negative aka print film has more latitude for underexposure, sometimes amazingly so. The imaging sensors in your digital camera respond to exposure almost like a hybrid of the two different kinds of color film: Overexposure wipes out image data but underexposure has more latitude, almost as much as film. The downside of digital underexposure is the inevitable creation of digital noise, especially in shadow areas.


What’s the correct exposure? You are the ultimate arbiter of what is “correct” exposure and one way to evaluate a particular image’s exposure is by using your camera’s histogram function. See your camera’s User’s Guide for information how to display a histogram on the LCD preview screen. Some cameras even let you display it in real time before capture.


The image’s histogram appears on the LCD screen as a graph displaying the photograph’s range of brightness from highlight to shadow and shows light values in 256 steps. Zero is on the left size of the graph and represents pure black; 255 is on the far right-hand side and represents pure white or the famous shot of a “Polar Bear in a Snowstorm.” In the middle are the mid-range values representing grays, as well as  browns, and greens.

On a typical photograph, all of a photograph’s tones will be captured when the graph rises from the bottom left corner then descends towards the bottom right producing what statisticians call a “bell-shaped” curve because it’s, well, shaped like a bell. If the histogram’s curves starts out too far in from either side or the slope appears cut off, then data is missing or the image’s contrast range may exceed the camera’s capabilities to capture what you see with your eyes. While the classic histogram features a bell-shaped (aka Gaussian) curve, not every photograph fits this type of distribution. Dramatic images with lots of light or dark tones areas often have lopsided histograms but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good photographs.


Along with photographer Barry Staver, Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s now out-of-print but new copies are available at collector (high) prices or used copies for giveaway prices from Amazon.

Author: Joe Farace

Share This Post On
%d bloggers like this: